Cyprus, lying less than 300 kilometers from the Lebanon and seemingly tucked in under Anatolia, is the third largest island in the Mediterranean. Its history is full of activity, of comings and goings, from the first colonization, by the Achaeans, in the 12th century BC onwards, although there were already pre-existing populations and civilizations of long standing. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Genoese, Venetians, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, Turks and goodness knows who else, all have put their feet down here. And each of them both took something and left something, whether it involved blood and pillage or culture and civilization.
Today’s Cypriots still live in a situation of instability and continuous change, but their character, which is little inclined to depression, has turned this into an opportunity for development. Even though the northern part of the island is still under Turkish military occupation, and despite the invasive presence of the British army, the air you breathe (in a virtual sense, given this torrid summer) almost fizzes with expectations. It could be simply the optimism of a predominantly young population, it could be the almost certain hope of making it into Europe at last, but everyone is busy making plans and impatiently awaiting the future. The atmosphere is like that in Italy at the end of the 1950s: everything seems possible … development, progress … Such words are full of fascination; they’re the driving force of human history. But they bring risks too. The greatest is possibly that of losing one’s identity, one’s roots.
You can already see it in the Anglicized tourist area of Agia Napa, which has become no different from the Costa Brava, the Algarve or Italy’s Adriatic, full of hotels spilling over onto the beaches, pubs, disco-bars and pizzerias with oddly mangled menus. But our fears on this count subsided as we drove west. Apart from the cities of Lefkosia (Nicosia), Larnaka (Larnaca) and Lemesos (Limassol), Cyprus is on a pleasingly human scale, and everything is within a stone’s throw of everything else. The sea, which is glorious almost everywhere, is just a few kilometers from archeological remains that evoke great emotions, and similarly close to the cool mountains of the interior, the well-planned road network and the airports. Cypriot culture runs strong and deep, and the national spirit is firmly rooted, well tempered by the trials and tribulations of life, and free of all provincialism. The signs of man’s presence are widespread but discreet, mostly in the form of tiny farming villages still closely tied to the land.
This may well be Cyprus’ s strength – as long as its inhabitants and its government understand its importance. The country has the opportunity to learn from others’ errors and, by holding on to its history and its culture, and preserving its environment, attract the rich, remunerative tourism of the future. This is no vain hope given the attachment that even young Cypriots have towards their traditional foods. They don’t scorn them as relics of the past but enjoy them every day with pride and pleasure. And a stop in any local taverna for mezzos, a series of small dishes rather like Spanish tapas, is like dipping into a history book that tells of foreign influences and of native originality on the Island of Aphrodite.
Cypriot Food Glossary
Although it has been adulterated in innumerable ways, the Cypriot diet retains many features of its origins and has numerable products that are not only worthy of attention but merit consideration by Slow Food Arks and Presidia.
Halloumi – an original, exclusive unpasteurized cheese, made from a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk and natural rennet, with natural methods used to form the curds. It is then salted in brine and stored in its whey. White, hand-pressed, with an elongated shape and numerous small round holes, its consistency is springy, even in the mouth, and the flavor is very fresh. It has an important role in the Cypriot diet: it is eaten both at breakfast, with fried eggs and olives, and in the evening. It may be eaten as it is, or boiled, fried or grilled, maybe with lemon juice. Many sheep farmers home-produce it and there are both artisan versions on the market (from small dairies using locally produced milk) and the far less interesting industrially-produced versions (made for mass distribution and export).
Koullouri – bread with sesame seeds, used for sandwiches, including those served in bars.
Flaounes – superb Easter breads, with egg, cheese and raisins, and spiced with sesame and mint.
Hiromeri – excellent cured ham. Salted, macerated in dry white wine and coriander, then smoked on slow-burning fires from locally grown woods such as carob and oak (but not conifers) which give it sweetness and wonderful aromas.
Lountza – smoked pork loin.
Loukanika – pork sausage with wild herbs, skinos (black berries found in Mediterranean scrubland) and red wine.
Pastourmas – sun-dried beef sausage with pepper and garlic.
A tradition that is dying out, as newer preservation techniques take over. Typical types include:
Xamarella – large, sun-dried sheep cutlets, served with Zivania, Cypriot grappa.
Apokti – salted, dried cutlets taken from the still-warm carcasses of animals deceased from old age.
Pastà – dried meat preserved in lard.
Zalatina (gelatine) – beef tongue, ears and trotters in aspic with citron (citromido) and rosemary sauce. In effect, a brawn. Note that rosemary is used only rarely in Cypriot cooking. It is considered the plant of the dead and is used to bring greenery to cemeteries, as cypresses do in Italy.
Grilled meat – considered the traditional dish of Cyprus, cooked on Sunday, exclusively by the men.
Kleftiko – mutton baked in earth or in a characteristic closed oven.
Sheftalià – beef and spices tied up with thread and grilled
Savoro – like the sweet-sour sardines found in Venetian cuisine, but here made with mullet.
Pasta – cooked in chicken stock and served with halloumi
Macaroni – just flour and water, no eggs.
Ravioles – squares stuffed with halloumi and mint.
Green Olives – stone pressed, brined, then flavored with coriander, garlic, lemon juice and oil.
Herbs and spices – those used most commonly are mint (for tea they use sage!), parsley, marakos (wild fennel), coriander and wild rocket. Rosemary is the plant of the dead and basil is not used in cooking but is considered the plant of love, a gift to bring good fortune to the girlfriend.
Salad greens – tomato, cucumber and raw eggplant all appear frequently.
Cypriot Tsantsiki – sauce of yogurt and grated, juiced cucumber (dried by passing through a sieve).
Kolokasi – also known as taro, or the Cyprus potato, a sweet root vegetable.
Luvana – a type of very small wild lentil, orange-colored, that is eaten uncooked as a starter, with lemon, oil from black olives, called Mavrolado, and coarse sea salt.
Kappari – this is the caper plant, preserved in vinegar.
Koutruvi – this is the real caper.
Okra – the solanaceous plant also known as ‘lady’s fingers’, served seared or fried, rather like courgette flowers.
Pourgouri – wheat couscous served with yogurt.
Souzoukko – an excellent typical specialty. It is a string of almonds and walnuts dipped in grape juice and dried. It is produced at harvest time and eaten, sliced, all year round, with salami and coffee or grappa.
Gliko tu koutaliou (spooning dessert) – fruits (citron, eggplant, quince, melon, water melon, cherry etc.) in syrup of a very dense consistency. Not dissimilar to a fruit conserve but intensely aromatic. But the real surprise comes from the whole green nuts, with their hulls, which take on a taste and aroma similar to marrons glacés.
Wine – Homer’s works referred to Cypriot wines, as did Artusi’s, but until a few years ago wine was not a drink commonly served at meals on the island. Now it is starting to become better known, but the stimulus has been foreign imports rather than tradition.
There are numerous indigenous grape varieties but these are poorly regarded. Instead the government is promoting the planting of other varieties, such as mataro, its criteria being no more than resistance to both heat and dryness. Nevertheless, decent and, importantly, distinctively flavored varietal wines can be found, produced from the xinisteri (white), maratheftico and mavro (both red) varieties. Mavro is unusual in that its berries are pear-shaped. There is also a variant with small, oval, eye-shaped berries which is hence known as mavro oftalmo.
Commandaria – this is the best known wine of Cyprus. Its name comes from an area of 12 villages that forms a single administrative entity. The wine is made from semi-dried grapes, from mavro and other varieties, fortified with Cypriot brandy. Sadly you can’t find Commandaria in those 12 villages scattered around Limassol, farmers sell their grapes to the large wineries based in the regional capital who sell all over the world. It would be a huge step forward if a local winery could be set up to follow the complete production cycle, from vineyard to bottle, and raise quality.
Ouzo – in Cyprus too we find the Greek and Mediterranean tradition of the aniseed-flavored spirit, here served with cucumbers and coarse salt
Zivania – this is the Cypriot grappa. It was illegal until 2000 but home-produced versions abounded. The extremely fragmented production and rudimentary equipment is reflected in the quality: some are excellent, others simply awful and even a risk to health. In village tavernas you may see grappa spilt onto trousers, as if by accident. Then they are set alight. If the flame is blue, everyone drinks happily. If the flame is reddish, the spirit is presumed to contain methanol and drinkers are less happy.
Brandy – distilled from wine. Drunk commonly, sometimes as a brandy sour, with lemon juice, sugar and soda water, especially as a long drink in the summer in holiday areas.
Beer – the real national drink, consumed in considerable quantities.
With thanks to Annarita e Michael Hadjigavriel for their friendly hospitality and the sharing of their deep knowledge.
Maurizio Fava is the coordinator of the Slow Food Master courses on wines and spirits
Photo: Halloumi on the grill
Translation by Maureen Ashley